Policy Analysis as an Exit Criteria:
The Case of the Participation in Government Research Paper in New York State
Nancy Hinkley, Cornell University & Casey Jakubowski, State University of New York-Albany
Imagine the most difficult task you have faced in your life. For many students, writing an essay is one of the most challenging undertakings of their school academic career. Imagine that essay is then morphed into a research paper, a required hurdle for graduation. That is the reality facing students in New York State schools. In this reflective essay, two experienced teachers, one social studies, and one special education, examine issues created by the capstone research report for students with a learning disabilities in a rural high school setting.
In the early part of the 2000s, we were paired instructors in special education mainstream inclusion classes in a small, rural, upstate school district in New York. The school district is classified as rural under the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) coding. In order to protect confidentiality, we do not identify the specific school district. New York State classifies the district as a high needs district to the resources it can generate. Over half of the students in the district are considered living in poverty based upon the federal Free and Reduced Lunch rate. The district has a students with disabilities classification rate between 10-20 percent. The district’s graduation rate for students with disabilities is between 40-60 percent. The district has had some struggles, with declining population, damage due to natural disasters, and a poor economic outlook as major employers have left the area. Students and families within this area tend to be transient, moving between neighboring districts with frequency.
Nancy has over 20 years of experience in education, while Casey was in the early stages of his career. Both of the instructors have a keen interest in social studies, and were paired in a Global History and Geography class for 10th grade students. Both teachers hold certifications in social studies for New York State. Collaboration efforts extended beyond regular co-teaching assignments. One target focus was the 12th grade students assigned to the state mandated Participation in Government class. Casey was the primary instructor of record, while Nancy was the special education department’s case manager for the students and had resource room/ consultation functions for more than 20 seniors that academic year. Nancy had noticed a number of seniors were struggling with the capstone paper requirement for the Participation in Government class. Nancy asked Casey to visit the resource room and add content specific guidance to students, as he was the instructor of record for the class. Both instructors noticed a number of roadblocks to the successful completion of the capstone paper requirement for Participation in Government.
We wanted to relate this story to social studies teachers, as well as special education professionals in light of the increased rigor and alternative pathways for graduation now available to students in high school. With programs such as New Visions in Government, and the Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) based programs in New York State, we hope that the requirements for graduation via the Participation in Government course is accessible to students with disabilities. The high stakes testing which has traditionally kept students from graduating, namely the Global History and Geography exam, has been shortened. In light of recent political occurrences, it is especially important for students to understanding the basics of citizenship and participation. In the next section, the authors describe the research paper requirements necessary for graduation.
Research paper requirements
The research paper is a capstone requirement in the New York State Social Studies scope and sequence for our particular district. The research paper asks students to select a public policy issue and research it. Research involves discovering historical background on the policy issue. The policy issue can be local, countywide, state level, or national in nature. The paper requires students to research the alternatives to the policy. The paper should provide alternatives in support and opposition to a proposed policy solution. Usually the requirements for the public policy research paper are set locally. The teacher or the department will establish minimum length requirements for the paper, the number of sources required, and if graphs or charts are required. Usually, the public policy paper is structured as a semester long assignment for the students in the senior year Participation in Government class. The course included readings from Coplin & O’leary (1988) as the core textbook. The ½ credit course is one semester in length. For many teachers, the frustration that students experience while completing the paper has resulted in the creation of a step by step guide to the research and writing process that the student must undertake as they develop this final, culminating project for their social studies career. The step-by-step manual is an attempt by schools to scaffold the research requirements into manageable sections during the semester. This follows best practice advice on how to teach adolescents to write (Graham & MacArthur, 2013).
The step by step guide is divided into parts that are the foci of the writing stages for the paper. Usually the completed packet is submitted along with the final paper to the teacher at the end of the semester. The stages of the packet begin with the selection of a public policy problem that the student can select. In some schools, the teacher or department may provide the students with a list of topics This part of the packet may involve having students explore some initial encyclopedia/ internet search level examination of their potential topics. Usually the teacher will require the students to submit three potential topics with a justification about why those topics were selected.
The second stage of the process is the initial research part of the paper. After students have selected topics that can be researched, the packet will then require students to provide at least three to five sources, properly cited using MLA style citations, and at least two quotes per source. The thinking behind this strategy is encouraging students to learn how to properly identify sources and cite quotes. Usually at this stage, the teacher will pair with the school or community librarians to work with students on the research aspect of the paper. This section of the package is then expanded to ask students to look at multiple types of sources, including books, articles, internet databases and other sources that may be encountered in undergraduate research papers.
The third stage of the packet involves having students contact public officials to conduct interviews or communicate in the form of a letter or e-mail exchange. During this period, students who have been keeping up with the efforts are finding the paper beginning to coalesce around their selected topic, and the research helps inform the creation of questions. In some schools, the students may be asked to conduct surveys within the school or community to gauge public opinion on the public policy issue. This process requires students to research, on a lower level, surveys and types of questions that will help in the public policy issue process.
The fourth stage of the paper process is the crafting of the actual paper. Students are led through writing exercises in order to craft topic sentences, supporting detail sentences, and paragraph structure. This part of the public policy research packet will ask students to submit draft paragraphs to the teacher in order to receive feedback on the structure, grammar, and progress of the research paper. As many researchers have found, students find writing difficult, and students with difficulties find this stage of the process extremely difficult.
The fifth stage of the public policy research paper is the verbal presentation to the class. Students are expected to prepare a five to ten minute presentation about their public policy issue, the alternatives, and their recommendations for the policy issue. Students are encouraged to use PowerPoint or other presentation software to enliven the presentation. The teacher and classmates may ask questions that the student will need to answer. For students who have difficulty with verbal communication, this can be a difficult process.
Comparisons across the state
How do schools across New York State handle the Participation in Government capstone course? The answer is it varies from district to district.
From Casey’s personal experience, graduating from a suburban Western New York school district which sent a number of students on to four year colleges, a research paper was required. The class needed to select a public policy issue and discuss its root causes and implementation strategies.
When Casey worked at a small Western New York rural district, there was no paper required for the course. Students there were expected to take quizzes, discuss current events and pass a final exam. This 50 question multiple choice exam covered material presented in class and via lecture.
During visits to 15 high schools with ‘accountability status’ between 2007-2013, only one required a research paper, and that research paper was reserved for the Advanced Placement and Syracuse University Project advance sections of the participation in government classes. In the other classrooms, current events binders, issues presentations, and campaign posters were most often used as methods to check for understanding. Many of the teachers, when asked about their Participation in Government courses felt they needed to educate students about the basics of voting and the basics of local government. In poorer areas, there was often a focus on interactions with police, the courts, and with student’s personal experiences in the local enforcement system.
In one large urban district in New York State, the policies for participation in government vary across schools and teachers. In this district, the Participation in Government teachers are often assigned last minute, and are rated on the Annual Professional Performance Review for students in the Global History or United States history classes. The department meetings in this district, as well as the district wide professional development often focus on the middle and high school levels, specifically the Regents tested curriculum.
Surveying the online syllabus of 30 districts across New York State, in 2017, we discovered that most classes required a project for a passing grade, but almost none of the syllabus required a policy analysis paper like what was required for our student. The syllabus were gathered as follows: five from the western New York area, five from the central/ southern tier area, five from New York City, five from Long Island, 5 from the Capitol/ Adirondack region, and 5 from the Finger lakes region.
We have often thought there are some serious issues that should be considered in the design of a course at the high school level that required students to write a research paper. Yes, we admit that it is an important and relevant skill for students to acquire before college. The Common Core Learning Standards (NGA, 2010) for writing do require students to become proficient in writing research papers as part of the expectations adopted by the Board of Regents. The New York State Social Studies Frameworks adopted in 2014 (NYSED, 2014) contain the social studies practices, which reference the ability of students to convey knowledge in written form. We have often asked ourselves if there is an alternative to the social studies research paper.
A Research perspective
From a special education standpoint, the paper is a perfect storm of issues that can hinder students, especially at a critical juncture of their school careers. Research indicates students who have been identified as having a learning difficulty are more at risk of exiting high school before they have obtained their graduation credential (Schargel & Smink, 2013). Bender (2004) identifies reading and writing difficulties as one of the most common manifestations of Learning disabilities in students. The idea of writing a large research paper is a daunting task to students who struggle with the basics of writing. There are many moving pieces to writing a paper for a high school student which include the following:
- Idea generation
- Research and sourcing
- Story mapping
- Paragraph construction
- Sentence construction
- Word Choice
- Editing for content
- Editing for construction
- Presentation (Terego, 2005).
These moving pieces must often occur in situations where a content area teacher, such as a social studies teacher, has not been trained in teaching writing to adolescent learners. Often content teachers are unable to diagnose writing problems, offer effective direct instruction, and assist students in meeting the expectations of the task: produce a research paper (Graham, et al, 2014). This leads to a mutually frustrating situation, as students who experience scholastic difficulties in writing are asked by teacher to write a significant paper. Further exasperating the problem, many of the teachers are ill prepared to teach the writing process (Lucas & Passe, 2017).
Besides one-to-one coaching, Casey was unsure on how to better assist the students with special learning needs in his classroom. Nancy, realizing her senior students were becoming increasingly frustrated at the project, began meeting with Casey to implement a strategic intervention plan for the students who needed extra help. Our first step was to meet on a regular, weekly basis to discuss student’s progress, their frustrations, and what we, as instructors could do to help.
The two teachers then examined some of the issues which emerged as students were writing their research paper. Nancy and Casey engaged in Self Study/ reflective practice in order to better serve the needs of the students. A self-study as defined in Kline and Soejatminah’s (2016) work contains five elements: “it is self-initiated and focused; it is improvement-aimed; it is interactive; it includes multiple, mainly qualitative methods; and it defines validity based on trustworthiness” (p. 162). Over the course of the fall semester of that year, we engaged in daily dialogues with each other. These dialogues were structured as mentoring sessions that were initiated through the school district’s efforts to pair an experienced teacher with a novice teacher. Additional dialogues included interaction with other members of the special education staff at the high school, and some discussions with members of the social studies department. Almost every teacher and teacher’s assistant in the two departments were available for conversations due to the small size of the departments. Our self study was designed less as a practitioner research project but more as an instructional improvement project in order to serve our highest priority stakeholders: at-risk special education students in a rural community in upstate New York.
In the class, we decided to move to a consultation model, where teams of students were given opportunities to meet with us in a setting where Casey helped with the content, and Nancy helped with the writing process. Students were asked, in teams, to read a paragraph the other student team member had written and make comments on the flow and content. This workshop approach, with two teachers available for support allowed students time in class to hone writing abilities.
We then invited students to come in during lunch and after school to receive more individual writing assistance with the paper. We also teamed with ELA teachers and the librarian at the school to offer “expert” assistance in writing and research. After school, students could access Casey for content, Nancy for scaffolding the assignment, the librarian for research help, and the ELA teacher for writing support.
The experience we reported here is an attempt to reflect upon and improve professional practice by an experienced and novice teacher working with at risk populations. We, as a team, were trying to ensure students who faced obstacles to graduation could have an opportunity to become successful. Further, we were aware of a situation which Deshler, Robinson, & Mellard, (2009) describe as the special education practitioner becoming the content area “tutor” that helped students with special needs “survive” content classes. We actively sought to ensure that both Casey and Nancy were equals, co-teachers, presenting and guiding students without differentiation of their classroom value to the students.
Without a doubt, the national attention payed to civics education is important, and frankly overdue. As social studies teachers across New York State realize, civics education is layered into the Common Core aligned state learning standards. With partnerships with librarians, media specialists, and the English departments become more critical now more than ever we must ensure students aren’t left behind. Engaging in citizenship by more than voting is important. The fundamentals and processes which are covered in the Participation and Government class help students master skills necessary for adulthood. The major concern is the level of support given to students to complete a research paper during the class, especially with students with disabilities. It is critical and important that if a large research paper is required, then sufficient co-planning, scaffolding, and feedback are marshaled between the two teachers. As practitioners, our best thinking is needed in this area.